A handful of Detroit school administrators filed into a quiet conference room, ready to fight for their jobs. They had twenty minutes to make their case. Most carried a written version of the appeal they wanted to make to the school board.
The end of the school year is approaching and 16 district administrators just learned that they might not be coming back next year.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is about to enter his second year as the district’s leader, issued “non-renewal notices,” to four school principals and 12 central office administrators.
But at the district’s Fisher Building headquarters on Tuesday, the people on the chopping block were all given a chance to appeal. Seven of them took the superintendent up on his offer to defend their work, with several scheduled for hearings Tuesday and others set for Wednesday.
The process, though likely difficult for the 16 people on the chopping block, was more measured than the one used in the past.
Previously, when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers, “non-renewals” went out every year to every non-union employee in the district — hundreds of people — forcing them to reapply for their jobs.
Emergency managers “just said, non-renew everybody and we’ll figure out the budget,” said Deborah Louis-Ake, president of the Detroit Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors, a union representing school administrators. She was in the conference room on Tuesday morning, advocating for a financial administrator who appealed his case to the school board. Nonetheless, she said the process was more predictable this year. “I think these are planned non-renewals,” she said.
Last year, as the district was transitioning to Vitti from an interim superintendent, non-renewals went out to central office staff. Vitti ended up cutting dozens of jobs, and moving certified educators back into classrooms to help alleviate the district’s teacher shortage. (Here’s how the district payroll changed between June and October).
Changes to this year’s process are part of a broader effort to reestablish stability in the district after more than seven years of five different emergency managers, Vitti said.
Even for high-performing employees, it was “demoralizing to get a non-renewal letter,” Vitti told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “It created instability.”
Touch-and-go job security, heaped on top of relatively low pay, made it hard for the district to attract strong administrators, according to Louis-Ake.
Once the seven administrators have had a chance to plead their case, the board will make final personnel decisions at a meeting on May 21, Vitti said.
Among those facing ousters are four principals who were singled out for failings such as poor communication with parents or bungled finances. Not all will lose their place in the district entirely.
Allan Cosma, principal of Ludington Magnet Middle and Honors School, could be demoted to assistant principal, a position that Vitti says would better suit his skills. Vitti first proposed firing Cosma in April after an audit turned up a financial issue. After a large group of supporters fought for him at a school board meeting, the board voted to place him on a 30-day unpaid leave.
The other 15 administrators were not identified by the district. Their appeal hearings were closed to the public, standard procedure for discussions of individual employees’ job performance. Board member LaMar Lemmons confirmed that Cosma was again appealing to the board, noting that the situation had been previously reported.
No principals are being fired this year because of low test scores, but Vitti says that’s likely to change next year. By then, school leaders will be expected to improve on this year’s academic performance, Vitti said. He is using tools such as “data chats” where principals analyze test scores and attendance rates to help spread leadership skills throughout the district.
By next year, principals whose performance is found lacking will know what to expect, said Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman.
“There’s no emergency manager that’s going to come in here in April and hand out non-renewals based on something that no one understands,” she said. “It’s a sign of stability.”